A nation divided: Carrie Mae Weems on the questions we should be asking

“How do we get there?” Carrie Mae Weems asked the audience in the College’s Given Auditorium. “How do we unpack the difficulty of where we are as a country, as a nation? What are the questions that we need to ask, what are the questions that we need to navigate, what are the things that we need to see, that we need to know?”

This question was one among a plethora of questions raised during her lecture on Wednesday, Oct. 23. Weems is a distinguished American contemporary artist, and this lecture touched upon many topics that her work also touches upon: racism, fear, strength, resilience, and grace.

Weems brought the issue of police brutality to each person in the auditorium. She asked the audience to imagine you were out for a stroll with a friend or a family member. Imagine that a speeding police car with its lights on stops before you. The officer gets out of the car, and demands to see your ID. You know that these types of encounters can end in tragedy, and “your fingers are crossed.” So you obey. You reach into your jacket pocket for your ID, but the officer imagines you are reaching for a gun that is “imagined to be in your jacket pocket.” A shot is fired, and you go down.

“Imagine, if you will, living under this constant pressure, this relentless violence, these constant threats where time and time again your encounter with those meant to serve ends with your possible death. Imagine that you are always stopped, always charged, always convicted. Imagine maybe what you might feel. . . Imagine this, if you will, and see this. Imagine the impossible. Imagine the worst of the worst, and know that it’s happening. . . I think of this as being a societal problem, not a black problem, not a white problem, but a societal problem that we all must figure out what we’re going to do about it. How we’re going to act. How we’re going to respond.”

One audience member responded. Years ago, she had been pulled over on the freeway in Washington, D.C. The officer gave her a ticket because her husband in the passenger seat was behaving aggressively. It felt like a minor thing, she presumed, because she and her husband were white. But, she said, “I’m left with the question, what do I do?”

Weems spoke to a great extent about the concept of grace, and its role in her first piece of performance art, Grace Notes. She expressed to the audience how her journey as an artist for this piece took her to her family, friends, religious leaders, and others, in search for the meaning of “grace.” It’s a complicated concept, she said, not just in terms of religion but as a way of life. What is the quality, the essence of grace? After many hours spent and tears shed, Weems told the story of a dream she had after a frustrating day of searching for meaning.

She dreamt she was standing by the seashore. An enormous wave was rising up out of the sea. She saw this wall of water descending upon her, and thought she was going to die. She started running, and as she turned to her right, there was Trump, “leering” at her. She thought, “what is he doing even in my dreams?” She ran past him, to warn her friends and family that this gigantic force was coming and that they needed to save themselves. As she ran, she saw ahead of her Martin Puryer’s ladder. Her friends and family were already climbing the ladder ahead of her. They were singing, “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder!”

Weems said, “there are forces all around us that seem to threaten us, that seem to challenge us, that seem even to be on the verge of destroying us, and yet one way or another we manage to climb, we manage to persevere, we manage to challenge with our voice, with our actions, with our being.”

So how do we get there? “What are the questions that we need to ask. . .  what are the things that we need to see, that we need to know?”

With the College being a secluded campus in Maine, it may be possible for some to hide from the harsh realities of our world. But we need to ask ourselves this, as students, and as a college, as a state, and as a country. Artists like Carrie Mae Weems come to the College, in part, to put these questions into our heads as students. We will be the ones running the world, and we’ll be doing it quite soon. So how will we get there?

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